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Window On The World

United Kingdom

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Window on the World
The British Broadcasting Corporation takes pride in its worldwide reputation
for impartiality. Yet in his ten years as a BBC producer, Chris Johnson discovered
the subtle way news is distorted to fit the ‘national interest’.

‘Our programmes, we hope, help to sustain the national morale, not by pumping out propaganda, or by concealing the darker side of national life, but by broadcasting the best we can of those things that our Royal Charter enjoins us to provide - information, entertainment and education.’

Sir Michael Swann, when chairman of the BBC.

The investiture of the Prince of Wales. The BBC pays close attention to national rituals.
Photo: BBC / Camera Press

Many staff and viewers wholeheartedly endorse this management evangelism - ‘public service broadcasting’, ‘balance’, ‘excellence’ and ‘objectivity’. It is like babies and ice cream; who could be against?

Well, the Glasgow University Media Group for a start. For the last decade they have painstakingly analysed television news and current affairs. After all, the BBC wields enormous power, entering, as it does, millions of people’s homes night after night, year on year. The Group’s reports are tartly titled ‘Bad News’ and ‘More Bad News’. In a foreword Professor Richard Hoggart writes:

‘Of course, what they call "the news" is biased; or if that seems too loaded a word, artificially shaped. It is the result each day of a process of selection so speedy and habitual as to seem almost instinctive.’

BBC staff must unite behind the status quo; ‘mainstream Christianity’~ constitutional monarchy, Parliament (the only legitimate agent of change), British sovereignty from Northern Ireland to the Falklands, the rule of law, the stock market and free enterprise system, the NATO alliance, the European Economic Community, marriage and the family. Reform of these institutions may be discussed. Those with radically different perspectives - internationalists, republicans, atheists, homosexuals, feminists and so forth must be treated with hostility. They threaten to upset ‘the balance’ of society.

All strikers by definition are damaging to ‘Great Britain Ltd’ and so must be pressured back to work. The causes of the strike are of marginal relevance to the newsroom. It is the consequence for the nation that counts.

So how is the staff brought to display this amazing uniformity of view? Stuart Hood, a BBC controller in more liberal days, chronicles in his book On Television the making of ’the BBC man’. They use a series of filters - application form, referees, school and university record, a civil-service-style appointments board, probationary periods, annual reports and interviews, sanctions such as withholding increments in pay, in-house training and even security checks. Oxbridge ‘high flyers’ are put on the fast route to the top. Those impatient of restraint are weeded out. They want organisation men. Few women make it.

In the newsroom, the canteen or the favoured pub older colleagues pass on the overview’ - what is deemed ’interesting’ and what is thought ‘inappropriate’. My career started in the North of England. I was told listeners had had too much of depressing subjects like unemployment. We musn’t put off potential industrialists with too much gloom. Tell them about our glorious countryside. Find a blacksmith still shoeing horses, perhaps. Get in a couple of weeks walking the hills on the Corporation. We called it ‘the last mole-catcher in Wensleydale’ syndrome. The gentlest form of censorship - you hardly felt it had happened.

Another subtle form of staff ’moulding’ is achieved by the powerful Weekly Programme Review Board. It is its duty to interpret policy handed down from on high and apply it to the daily output. Who is to be branded ‘militant’ and who ‘moderate’? It is this body that decides when to stop calling Robert Mugabe’s supporters in the Rhodesian struggle for majority rule terrorists’ and switch to the more neutral ‘guerillas’. They would never be described as ‘freedom fighters’.

The minutes of these meetings were marked ‘confidential’ and circulated to department heads. But they were encouraged to leave them overnight in unlocked drawers. Knowledge thus gained, surreptitiously by the night shift, spread like wildfire. It was marvellously effective in inducing self-censorship.

So effective a process indeed that the staff instructions booklet ‘Principles and practice in News and Current Affairs’ could proudly claim: ‘Presenters, commentators, news correspondents, current affairs reporters and news readers have one thing in common. Each of them, for as long as he is on the screen or behind a microphone, is the BBC.’

This ‘one-eyed’ stance by television is blamed by historian EP. Thompson. a long time campaigner against nuclear weapons, for throwing victory in the l983 British general election to Mrs Thatcher and the Conservatives. Instead of the issues being debated, on the news he saw a ‘consensus’ recycled on the news nightly, planted in the bemused heads of the viewers who were then polled the next day and who echoed back to the pollsters what had been planted in their heads the night before.

‘It is as if the British public were incapable of tasting any serious political argument until presenters have chewed it over twenty times in their knowing gobs.’

Just what is he complaining about? Well in the seventies, partly because of such dissatisfaction, there was a demand from the public for ‘access’ to programmes. I worked on the first ever BBC radio political phone-in programme on the network. I know what panic it induced. How to contain and control? After all the public weren’t staff. The confidential minutes show how it was done.

Minute 105 (c) Voice of the People

‘A very careful screening process has been set up. The girls who receive the calls are well chosen and intelligent. They operate a warning system, identifying, for instance, "nut cases" and "cranks". The editor himself can cut across calls. Thirty calls are chosen from around 300 and the producer makes the final selection. Special caution is exercised in dealing with topics where there are vested interests and pressure groups.

‘When treating sensitive subjects the editor ensures that knowledgeable persons are briefed to listen and ring in if they feel the programme is running off its tracks. The Director of Programmes Radio thought this ‘witness for truth’ an important element.’

So the very establishment experts who would, in former times, have been invited into the studio as guests are instead planted as ‘ringers’. The producer then chooses ordinary callers who match the questions he feels should be asked in the order he feels they should be asked. Not quite the ‘Voice of the People’ but then that is what ‘producing’ means.

Dr. Philip Schlesinger, a senior sociologist, spent six months all told in the BBC’s television newsroom before writing his excellent book Putting ‘reality’ together - BBC News. He concludes that the ‘myth of value-freedom is essential for public consumption, and believed in by those who propagate it. Such ideas have the same rhetorical function for news as they have had for sociology in its longstanding attempt to sell itself as a science.’

He also states that staff adhere to this model as ‘a condition of employment’. The corporation has endless soul-destroying berths on the night shift or pushing paper for deviants. So sackings are rare. A favoured ‘Siberia’ in my day was the ’God squad’ slots such as ‘Songs of Praise’. Although aptly they were reserved not for political miscreants, but rather for those weathering messy public divorces.

Back to E.P. Thompson for the big question. After all there is no democracy within the BBC. The governing body is mysteriously ‘appointed’ from among ‘the great and the good’. Independence from Government is asserted. The millions of viewers have no say.

‘Therefore by what special licence did they acquire authority to act as turnpike gatekeepers to the nation’s political thoroughfares, to forbid some traffic and beckon other traffic through?’

Allow me one last extract from the confidential minutes. Controller Radio One and Two is analysing the success of top disc jockey Tony Blackburn.

‘He has a clean image, slightly but agreeably old-fashioned. He scares off no category of his audience. One must beware of trying to persuade DJs to say anything which might damage their authenticity for listeners. Head of Radio One (pop channel) observed that even if Blackburn listened to Radio Three (classical music) it would be wrong for him lobe known to do so: it would render his character unreal.’

We have travelled a long way. ‘Public service’ and ‘authenticity’ now transcend truth - they demand a lie. We know Radio Onederful is pumped out in factories to increase pace on the assembly line. Radio Two’s light music is medium-wave Valium for bored housewives. And news has become the craft of ‘impression management’.

As Stuart Hood points out, at the end of most major news bulletins the newsreaders almost always shuffle their scripts into a neat pile and cap their pens. Order is imposed. The ungodly continue ungodly but the audience can sleep easy - the window on the world reveals an unchanging view.

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New Internationalist issue 146 magazine cover This article is from the April 1985 issue of New Internationalist.
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